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Community Impact

Leaving Ukraine—How One Little Girl Defied the Odds

Rosa playing with her new friend.

She was given-up upon birth once her parents recognized she had a severe and profound intellectual disability. She was left on the doorsteps of a Ukrainian orphanage—mostly invisible to the outside world and largely forgotten, too.

Nine years later, and just days after Russia invaded Ukraine with devastating effect, Rosa was one of 30 residents of an institution in Znamjanka, Ukraine facing a desperate situation, knowing they must urgently escape the war. Exacerbated by a lack of early stimulation and intervention, Rosa has both severe intellectual, and physical, disabilities that have hindered her ability to learn speech, and develop physically. When it came time to leave the orphanage, Rosa fled in a wheelchair aided by caregivers and fellow residents.

Three days of travel on a bus, mitigating potential roadblocks, military controls and a deepening social and political uncertainty, Rosa finally made it to safety, first to the Polish town of Tomaszow Lubelski, and then onto Krosnobrod, a rural Polish town 25km to the Ukrainian border. It was here that Rosa, together with those from the institution, were welcomed to a center called Sanatorium. Their immediate needs were dire, from clothes to sanitation infrastructure to basic supplies. However, the group was safe, at least.

Rosa taking her first steps.

Special Olympics quickly learned of the situation unfolding for individuals with intellectual disabilities like Rosa in Ukraine and throughout the border nations. Through the global Special Olympics Unified with Refugees program, Special Olympics acted immediately to support the center of Sanatorium, and help with the provision of food, water, basic supplies and sanitation needs.

In addition, due to the support of Lions Clubs International Foundation and the Special Olympics state organization in the US State of Pennsylvania, Special Olympics ensured the provision of one additional element: motor activity training and development equipment to offer Rosa and all the residents the chance to develop fine and gross motor skills—one of the strongest and most urgent needs of individuals with severe and profound intellectual disabilities.

Weeks and weeks passed in Krosnobrod, Poland, as the residents of Sanatorium and the world witnessed what all-out war in Europe means in the 21st century following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, just as the world witnessed the courageous defiance of the Ukrainian people, Rosa too was taking steps to defy the odds, and shatter expectations.

In a small field outside of the Sanatorium center, in front of her friends and caregivers, with no camera or fanfare, nine-year-old Rosa and Special Olympics claimed victory. With grit and determination, and in the face of tremendous odds, Rosa took her first steps.

On her own.

During this period, Rosa also began to speak, answering questions directly from her caregivers and communicating with fellow residents. There was no medal stand to recognize Rosa for her incredible achievement. There was no coaching certificate to offer to Rosa’s caregivers beyond the intrinsic satisfaction that comes in knowing that you have helped someone in need. There was however an overwhelming sense of unity at Sanatorium.

Most of all, there was Rosa—on her feet. A symbol of hope in a world of so much darkness.

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